After Border Drama, Republicans Assess Steve Scalise

Scalise, left, faced an important test during the border funding fight. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Scalise, left, faced an important test during the border funding fight. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted August 5, 2014 at 5:00am

Newly installed House Majority Whip Steve Scalise helped resurrect the GOP’s border legislation last week, but his strategy for shoring up the votes has left some members and aides wondering whether he will be able to keep an unruly flock in line.  

Worrying about making the rank and file happy, he assisted in salvaging a $694 million appropriations measure to bolster resources at the U.S.-Mexico border largely by giving in to the demands of the far-right contingent of the GOP conference — including Reps. Steve King of Iowa and Michele Bachmann of Minnesota — rather than bringing down the proverbial hammer.  

There’s anxiety among more moderate parts of the party over how Scalise will help hold the conference together to avoid another government shutdown when the chamber reconvenes next month, and how his own desires to win re-election to the whip position in November could factor into how he does his job.  

“He has to move a [continuing resolution], and is he going to fight for our legislation or will he try to cater to those who have put our high-profile bills into question every time they come to the floor?” said one aide for a House Republican who consistently votes the party line. “It’s a major test for him. And if he’s re-elected whip, he’s going to have to do some soul searching to figure out what he is, how he is going to approach his job.”  

Members and staffers alike told CQ Roll Call that Scalise secured support for the legislation by asking members what they wanted, rather than telling them what they were going to get. It could, they said, create a precedent where the most intransigent members feel empowered.  

Some argue that’s already started: King, one of the conference’s perpetually dissatisfied conservatives, crowed over leadership’s decision to put many of his priorities into a final legislative package, including a separate vote to end President Barack Obama’s program granting stays of deportation and work permits to certain immigrants.  

“It’s like I ordered it off the menu,” King said in an off-hand comment to CQ Roll Call that was immediately seized upon by Democrats.  

“The fact that you allow a lame duck like Michele Bachmann to manipulate, a freshmen Sen. Ted Cruz to kind of set the tone for this House, and more important for this Republican Caucus — that’s a sad commentary on leadership,” Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., said.  

King and Bachmann felt vindicated. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
King and Bachmann felt vindicated. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

King over the weekend talked about the “i word” — impeachment — if Obama grants deportation relief and work permits to millions of additional immigrants.  

“I think Congress has to sit down and have a serious look at the rest of this Constitution and that includes that ‘i word’ we don’t want to say,” King said on “Fox News Sunday.” “Where would we draw the line otherwise? If that’s not enough to bring that about then I don’t know what would be.”  

Opting last week to sue the president instead, impeachment is exactly what GOP leaders don’t want to be talking about.  

Scalise a week earlier caused a stir when he refused to rule out impeachment on the same program, and some might fear that if he’s willing to listen to King on immigration, he’ll listen to him on other matters, too.  

But for now, several Republican lawmakers told CQ Roll Call on condition of anonymity that they are willing to cut Scalise some slack over last week’s border drama. They noted their Louisiana colleague was in his first day on the job, and immigration isn’t exactly an easy lift.  

“They were starting out on the worst issue,” said a Republican aide who has worked on immigration issues on Capitol Hill for over a decade, regarding Scalise’s whip team. “It’s emotional, it’s political, it’s a little bit of everything and people tend to be really dead set on some of those issues. You take it on as your first one, it’s as hard as it gets.”  

The aide said Scalise did the best he could to be inclusive, a sentiment echoed by someone close to the new whip operation, who described Scalise’s approach as that of a “bottom-up, consensus-builder” who encourages a “member-driven process,” like he did when he was the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee. That title helped him win the whip slot in June.  

“He brought every member to the table,” the staffer familiar with Scalise’s approach continued. “Mr. Scalise reached out to them … he went through great lengths to make sure he had input from all members across the spectrum of the conference [and] when you look at the final product, it was something the entire conference coalesced around.”  

Another GOP aide spoke of the collaborative process Scalise and new Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California facilitated behind the closed doors of a Republican conference meeting on Aug. 1.  

“It was almost like they were writing the bill inside of conference,” the aide said. “Someone would say something and be like, ‘I’ll take note of that.’ … I think it’s a different way of doing things.”  

In a statement to CQ Roll Call, Scalise emphasized the team accomplishment.  

“Rather than giving President Obama a blank check or leaving town without doing our job, House Republicans came together as a team and worked to get the right policy for the American people,” Scalise said. “We led by passing a bipartisan, common-sense solution to the crisis on our southern border, and now we need Harry Reid’s Senate to join us by taking up and passing this bill.”  

As many pointed out, even if Scalise wanted to wield a hammer, the true hammers of the Tom DeLay era are gone; Speaker John A. Boehner says as long as he’s in charge of the chamber, there won’t be earmarks to be used as bargaining chips. And the Ohio Republican learned the hard way that kicking troublesome members off key committee assignments isn’t always an effective punishment, either.  

But skeptics still wonder about the bottom line of Scalise’s method for whipping. Leadership took the tack of “following the will of the conference” almost a year ago — but that led to the two-week government shutdown. And Democrats are already using the GOP’s retreat on immigration and passage of deportation legislation on the campaign trail.  

It’s a tension that many Republicans can pinpoint, including the aide who was impressed by the wrap session over the border funding bill.  

“At the end of the day, it’s one of the best votes we had in a long time. We only lost four votes,” the aide said of the $694 million border package. “But they absolutely catered to what the conservatives wanted.”